Monday, September 27, 2010

Crappy reporting sells but is it journalism?

I've seen this story making the rounds of the major media outlets. I specifically remember the Washington Post making this claim, and now Time magazine does as well. The claim: "Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 1 in 5 sexually active gay and bisexual men in America are HIV-positive but that 44% of them don't know it."

What's wrong with that claim? Simple: It isn't true. This is not what the CDC said. But once the media starts spreading a false story they all tend to jump in line and do the same thing. Time is repeating the falsehood that the Washington Post started: "One in five gay men in the United States has HIV and almost half of those who carry the virus are unaware that they are infected..."

In both articles, with the sensational false claim in the first paragraph, you have to start reading down the article to discover facts that dispute the lede of the story.

The original claim is that 20% of all gay men across the US are HIV positive. But farther down the story you discover that the CDC tested 8,000 gay men in 21 major cities only. In other words the demographics of the test population was skewed to the major cities only, thus excluding all the gay men who live in rural areas or the suburbs.

Quite honestly speaking the lifestyle of gay men in urban areas is vastly different than that of gay men living on a farm in Kansas—just as the lifestyle of young straights in the major cities is different from their counterparts in the rest of the country.

You simply can not draw nation-wide conclusions by only surveying a very specific subset of the population.

One of the major differences is that the average age of people living in major cities, among the gay population at least, would tend to be younger and thus more sexually active. Living in a major city is not unusually for gay men, but many tend to move out of the cities as they age. Many, contrary to popular assumptions, never move to a major urban area in the first place. In addition the risks are not spread equally among all races. HIV infections are higher in the black community than in the white community and blacks are more likely to live in major cities than are whites.

Everything about this study skews it toward the highest infection possible. But the CDC is not to blame, that is what they were studying. It is the sloppy reporting of the media that is creating a false meme that the Right will use in their anti-gay campaigns. The CDC actually warned readers of the report that "these findings are limited to men who frequented MSM-identified venues (most of which were bars [45%] and dance clubs [22%])...."

By MSM they mean men who have sex with other men. The CDC found that a lot of men who are sexually active with other men deny that they are gay—this has been especially true in the black community—just ask Bishop Long if you don't believe me.

That reveals that not only is the sample intentionally skewed toward urban settings, but it is also skewed to a specific subgroup of urban gay men—those who frequent bars and dance clubs. Again this skews in favor of younger, single, more sexually adventurous young men. Older gay men in relationships, who rarely visit the clubs, are left out.

This one in five infection rate isn't even indicative of gay men in 21 major cities. Don't bother reading the mainstream media to find that out. The articles I read left out the part of the survey being done in gay bars and dance clubs. So, while they did mention the survey was done in 21 major cities, they left out that only a very specific subgroup of gay men were approached for the study: younger men who frequent gay bars and dance clubs.

To say that what is true for young gay men who frequent gay bars is true, on average, for all gay men in the United States is not just sloppy journalism, it is gross misreporting of the facts. This would be similar to surveying a frat house keg party in order to determine the drinking habits of the average American. Yet you will find the major media outlets making the same mistake. Time and the Washington Post are not local rags produced by amateurs.

The CDC actually warned readers not to jump to the false conclusion that this reflects the entire gay population of America. They wrote, "the results are not representative of all MSM..." The CDC actually puts the infection rate of all gay men at around half of what this survey finds, but even that is problematic.

The problem with surveys of the gay population is that being gay isn't like being black, it is something people can hide, and do. There are huge numbers of gay people in the country who are completely unconnected with the larger gay population. They may live in isolated locations, or simply live socially isolated lives.

Any study of the gay community goes to where the surveyors can get answers with a minimum amount of effort. And that means in the concentrated gay "ghettos" in the major urban areas. Here are some facts:

1. We simply don't know for sure how many gay men there are in the United States.
2. We are not likely to know for a very long time, if ever.
3. It is almost impossible to do a representative survey of the gay population, if not impossible.
4. What surveys we can do are all skewed toward one end of the lifestyle spectrum while entirely excluding those on the other end.

This doesn't mean the study is useless. Understanding the limitations of the study allows us to make reasonable conclusions, but what the mainstream media is reporting are unreasonable conclusions. The study shows that educational efforts directed toward young, sexually active, gay men in urban settings are not as successful as they should be.

If we assume that the study shows where new efforts might be necessary, then it fills its purpose. But what we can't do is jump to conclusions about the gay population as a whole. In other words the worst thing you can get out of the study is precisely what the major media outlets were reporting. That is not an indictment of the CDC but of the mainstream media in the United States.

Photo 1: those who got surveyd. Photo 2: those who didn't, to illustrate the point.

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